Image of Marilyn Mecija, a cancer patient

Two jobs, 12-hour shifts, five-to-six days a week, this was the life of Marilyn Mecija for many years. Working night shifts in the intensive cardiac care unit at both the MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Long Beach Medical Center and another local hospital, Marilyn was a self-proclaimed workaholic who was always on the move. At age 57 there was no stopping Marilyn, until one day she discovered blood in her stool.

Marilyn was alarmed. She knew she had to see her doctor and do so quickly. In December 2011, Marilyn visited her general physician to try to get some answers as to what was going on. After receiving a colonoscopy and a subsequent biopsy she played the “waiting game,” anxiously awaiting her biopsy results.

“It was January 9, 2012, I’ll never forget the day,” says Marilyn. “I received a call from my doctor’s office with the test results and I was diagnosed with stage II rectal cancer on the day of my 30th wedding anniversary.”

On top of receiving this devastating diagnosis, Marilyn was informed that she would need to have an emergency colostomy. A colostomy is a surgical procedure where a stoma, an opening which connects a portion of the body cavity to the outside environment, is formed by drawing the healthy end of the large intestine or colon through an incision in the abdomen. This provides an alternative channel for feces to leave the body and meant she would have to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of her life. Not taking this information very lightly, Marilyn wanted a second opinion and needed it fast.

Knowing that a permanent colostomy would drastically change her life, Marilyn wouldn’t allow herself to go through the surgery until she received the expert opinion of an oncologist she could trust. Coming from a family of nurses she pooled her resources and asked them for help finding an oncologist. Marilyn was able to make an appointment with Nilesh Vora M.D., oncologist, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center. In order to provide an accurate diagnosis, Dr. Vora conducted his own tests and consulted with colleague, Imad Shbeeb M.D., medical director, Colorectal Surgery Program, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, regarding Marilyn’s case.

Drs. Vora and Shbeeb determined that the emergency colostomy was unnecessary and decided to take a different approach to treat Marilyn’s cancer. With the life-changing colostomy surgery now out of the question, Marilyn underwent a temporary ileostomy, where a loop of the small intestine is brought through the skin, and the colon and rectum are not removed. Following her temporary ileostomy, Marilyn underwent 30 sessions of neoadjuvant chemotherapy and radiation therapy with A. M. Nisar Syed, M.D., medical director, Radiation Oncology & Endocurietherapy, MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center and then had her tumor surgically removed.

Throughout her radiation therapy treatments Marilyn kept in constant contact with Dr. Vora to monitor her progress and even allow her to continue working, as long as her health was in good standing. The final phase of Marilyn’s treatment was eight sessions of chemotherapy and in May 2013 she had a final surgery to reverse her ileostomy.

Marilyn now has a new lease on life. Every three to four months she visits her team of physicians for routine check-ups and has changed her life for the good of her health. She now works exclusively in the intensive cardiac care unit at Long Beach Medical Center, where she has been caring for patients for 33 years.

On top of quitting her other job, Marilyn no longer works unnecessarily long hours, has grown to love sleeping a full eight hours and has taken up Zumba®.

“I feel great about the changes I’ve made in my life,” says Marilyn. “Not only do I look and feel good, I know I have a great support system behind me. I have learned to enjoy life and take care of myself, rather than just be a workaholic. The right doctor can make a huge difference in a patient’s life. That is what I learned after receiving treatment from Dr. Vora and Dr. Shbeeb. They gave me a second chance and now I’m living my life to the fullest.”